Internet addiction is a relatively new disorder, and we still have much to learn regarding this condition. Like other addictive disorders, Internet addiction is characterized by excessive or poorly controlled preoccupations, urges, or behaviors around computer use and Internet access that lead to distress or impairment.1 Though specialized treatment is relatively limited, traditional methods have also demonstrated significant progress.
When Internet Use Becomes an Addiction
The Internet has found its way into the daily lives of billions of people worldwide.2 According to Internet World Stats, approximately 4.6 billion (59.6%) of the 7.8 billion world population are Internet users.2 A 2019 study conducted by Pew Research Center revealed that 81% of Americans reported daily use while 28% stated they are “almost constantly” online.3
What is considered healthy Internet use will vary from person to person, but unhealthy use is indicated by the level of distress caused. The point of addiction is marked by excessive and compulsive use that extends beyond ordinary control.
Types of Internet Addiction
To date, researchers have identified five subcategories of Internet addiction, which include cybersex addiction, net compulsions, cyber relationship addiction, compulsive information seeking, and computer or gaming addiction.4
The term sexual addiction “refers to a specific condition in which the person engages in repetitive and increasingly risky sexual behaviors.”5 Accordingly, cybersex addiction is an acting out of sexual addiction through the Internet. This includes but is not limited to the use of pornography and other sexually explicit material, sexual fantasy/adult chat rooms, or XXX web-cam services.4
Net compulsions involve those interactive activities that tend to negatively impact one’s finances and employment. Compulsive online shopping, online auctions, online stock trade, and online gambling are examples of such activities. What is particularly enticing here is that the individual generally receives gratification twice—upon initial engagement (e.g., making a purchase) and receipt of services (e.g., receiving the item purchased).4
Cyber Relationship Addiction
Cyber relationship addiction arises when the need to be involved with finding and maintaining online relationships becomes compulsive.4 This may entail the quest for online fame or being driven by likes and comments on one’s social media. As people become more desperate for such approval, it becomes increasingly likely that the individual will only show one side of one’s personality and/or begin embellishing.
Compulsive Information Seeking
Compulsive information seeking is, as the name implies, a compulsion to continually search for information. Given the vast amount of correct and incorrect information available online, this may ultimately prove an overwhelming task. Regardless, the individual moves from one topic to the next compulsively searching for more information.
Computer or Gaming Addiction
Computer or gaming addiction may take place both off and online.4 It entails a general compulsion to be on the computer and/or playing games as much as possible to the detriment of one’s well being. Before the Internet was widely used, home computers included basic games such as solitaire, which for some, were addictive in nature. With the Internet constantly providing new games, there is a never-ending potential for playing as many games as possible.
Signs of Internet Addiction: What to Watch For
While the type of use may vary, children as young as 1 or 2 are now familiar with how to navigate a tablet, while senior populations are using the Internet to retrieve and store medical information. Although there are some commonalities between and among the signs of Internet addiction for all age groups, there are some differences to consider.
Signs of Internet Addiction in Young Children
For very young children, warning signs may include excessive tantrums when removed from the Internet, as well as a lack of engagement in other activities (e.g., playing with dolls, coloring, building with blocks, etc.). Because many parents must meet the everyday demands of work, family and so on; the Internet has become an “electronic babysitter.”
While it does help keep children away from potentially physically risky behaviors, as well as “off the parent’s back,” it does lead toward a pervasive need for more immediate gratification, and makes traditional play less enticing.
Signs of Internet Addiction in Older Children & Teens
For older children and teens who did not previously demonstrate signs of Internet addiction, it is important to note changes in behavior from the norm. This is in addition to characteristics described for young children. Here we may also witness a lack of physical social engagement and failure to complete household chores and homework.
With older children and teens, it is important to consider whether the attachment to the Internet is due to interpersonal issues at school. Perhaps the child or teen is struggling to fit in or is being bullied. The Internet, then, may serve as a means of escape and re-creating one’s identity.
Signs of Internet Addiction in Adults & Seniors
For adults and seniors, similar characteristics as mentioned above should be considered. With this population, however, it is more challenging to set boundaries around use. For adults and seniors, the Internet may be required for work. Further, it is harder to take away Internet accessible devices.
Accordingly, it may be easier for adults and seniors to hide such addictive behaviors. Here it is highly likely that one of or a combination of interpersonal skills deficits, mental health complications, and/or substance use may be involved. Accordingly, individuals may be using the Internet as a means of coping and avoiding everyday and traumatic stressors.
How Is Internet Addiction Related to Mental Illness?
Given its versatility, the Internet has many practical applications that may attract individuals with addictive tendencies and/or mental illness to use it excessively and compulsively.
Research has found that adolescents who struggle with Internet addiction are more likely to have issues with substance use, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), specific phobias, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and/or aggressive and impulsive behavior.6 For adults, typical predispositions may include depression, anxiety, substance use, compulsive behaviors, sleep disorders, ADHD, anger issues, and/or dissociative experiences.6
Health Risks and Concerns of Internet Addiction
Although the Internet itself does not impose harm upon a person, excessive and compulsive use leading up to and including Internet addiction does come with it a plethora of physical, cognitive, and social issues.
Some of the more common emotional symptoms associated with Internet addiction include the following:
- Feelings of guilt
- Feelings of euphoria when using the computer
- Inability to prioritize or keep schedules
- No sense of time
- Avoidance of work
- Mood swings
- Boredom with routine tasks
Some of the more common physical symptoms associated with Internet addiction include the following:
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Poor nutrition (failing to eat or eating excessively to avoid being away the computer)
- Poor personal hygiene (e.g., not bathing to stay online)
- Neck pain
- Dry eyes and other vision problems
- Weight gain or loss7
Although none of these symptoms are directly fatal, exacerbating symptoms leading toward suicidal or homicidal ideation and successful attempts are. As such, it is especially important to not only consider one’s use of the Internet but the entire picture.
Causes of Internet Addiction
Accessibility, control, and excitement are leading factors in the cause of Internet addiction.8 In such consideration, accessibility entails easy and immediate 24/7 access to the Internet. Control means that individuals can go online when they want and engage as desired. And excitement is that euphoric feeling one experiences when one’s needs are met. The greater the accessibility, control, and excitement for the individual; the greater likelihood that one may ultimately become addicted.
In a study focused on purposes, causes, and consequences of excessive Internet use among Turkish students, Filiz Akar found the following main categories that solicit involvement of Internet use: a) learning and development needs, b) socialization need, c) psychological reasons, and d) seeking entertainment.9
Learning and Development Needs:
- Learning and self improvement
- Following the agenda
- Learning new things
- Keeping abreast of technology and science
- Doing research
- Learning to inform others
- Reading e-newspapers, books
- Following cultural events
- Talking with friends
- Chatting on social networks (Facebook, Twitter)
- Browsing forums and blogs
- Staying informed about friends
- Searching friends
- Sharing different ideas
- Failure to become social in the past
- Killing time out of boredom
- Forgetting/getting away from problems
- Finding nothing else to do
- Relaxing, getting rid of stress
- Feeling a sense of freedom
- Watching movies, shows, videos
- Playing games
- Shopping easily9
While many of these are healthy, everyday activities, it is the excessive and compulsive nature of Internet addiction that makes them increasingly unhealthy.
Treatment of Internet Addiction
Treatments for Internet addiction may include individual or group therapy, lifestyle changes, residential treatment for more severe cases, and medication if there is a co-occurring condition which warrants it.
Because Internet usage has soared at a pace that exceeds our ability to fully comprehend its implications, treatment approaches for Internet addiction are relatively new and have some catching up to do. Fortunately, many of the most commonly used approaches are adaptable to this relatively new phenomenon.
Common Types of Therapy
In terms of treatment, the following are some of the more commonly used approaches:
- Individual, group, or family therapy
- Behavior modification
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Equine therapy
- Art therapy
- Recreation therapy
- Reality therapy7
For more severe cases of Internet addiction, a more specialized, residential style treatment may be beneficial.
Intended Treatment Outcome & Timeline
Individual treatment outcomes will vary. The most critical determining factor here is one’s willingness to change. Change does not happen overnight, and it requires a lifetime of intentional effort.
Know that with whatever choice one makes for treatment, lifestyle change and active engagement are required. Lifestyle change will require an active and consistent effort toward distancing oneself from the Internet while engaging in those activities that minimize the likelihood of triggering problematic behavior.
While there are some considerations regarding medication to treat Internet addiction, this is a relatively new endeavor that warrants further exploration. Escitalopram is one such drug. For those with co-occurring mental health disorders, it is recommended to take any psychotropic medications as prescribed. Not taking medications as prescribed may ultimately impact the symptoms of Internet addiction as well.
How to Get Help for Internet Addiction
It is important to become well informed if you think you or a loved one are dealing with an Internet addiction. Becoming aware of the signs and symptoms, as well as treatment options, may increase the likelihood of receiving an agreement for help as well as successful outcomes.
How to Get Help for a Loved One
With loved ones it is important to have a supportive, informed conversation. It should be expected that your loved one may deny or become defensive. Your response should be as supportive as possible and come from a loving place. Once your loved one acknowledges the problem, a collaborative approach toward treatment may begin. As you move forward, it is also important to model healthy behavior, which may entail cutting back on Internet use yourself.
How to Get Help for a Child or Teen
Upon a supportive discussion around the issue, it helps to immediately set boundaries. This may involve limiting the amount of time on the Internet and those devices which access it or removing them completely (if necessary).
Encouraging involvement in prosocial activities, spending more time with the child or teen, and brainstorming alternative means of having fun are also helpful. As a parent or guardian, there is the option to follow through with treatment, even if involuntary, so long as the child or teen is a designated minor. The more comprehensive the approach, the more likely a successful outcome.
Preventing an Internet Addiction
Preventing an Internet addiction requires a combination of being knowledgeable about what it is and being self-aware. If you notice an increase in use and more life problems beginning to arise, it is important to take pause. This requires a level of honest self-awareness around use.
Some suggestions for preventing an addiction to Internet use include the following:
- Limiting time spent on the Internet and accessible devices
- Limit time spent on electronics in general
- Takes breaks during longer sessions
- Be intentional with what you are doing online and not engage distractions that may keep you on longer
- Participate in prosocial activities that you enjoy
- Participate in team sports or activities
- Spend physical time together with family members, friends, co-workers, and others without allowing yourself to be distracted
- Be present with your work—whether occupational or school
- Purchase less electronic devices, especially those that access the Internet
- Engage in physical exercise
- Spend more time outdoors enjoying nature
- Write letters by hand
- Read a physical copy of a book
- Engage in any other healthy activity that limits time spent online
As increased awareness of Internet addiction spreads, many companies have developed apps and/or integrated software that tells users how much time has been spent online and compares that time to one’s history. Some software even goes as far as shutting down WIFI access and/or locking down the device. While this is also helpful for those who are already struggling with addiction, it may also serve as a helpful preventative measure.
Internet Addiction Statistics
It is estimated that there are approximately 4.6 billion Internet users worldwide.2 In the United States alone we have already witnessed an increasingly significant problem that warrants concern. From January 8 through February 7, 2019, Pew Research Center conducted telephone interviews among a national sample of 1,502 adults, 18 years of age or older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.11
The results were as follows:
- Overall, 81% of Americans say they go online on a daily basis. That figure includes the 28% who are online almost constantly, as well as 45% who say they go online several times a day and 9% who go online about once a day. Some 8% go online several times a week or less often, while 10% of adults say they do not use the internet at all.
- Adults with mobile connectivity are especially likely to spend a significant amount of time online. Among mobile internet users—the 86% of Americans who use the internet at least occasionally using a smartphone, tablet or other mobile device—92% go online daily and 32% are online almost constantly.
- Younger adults are at the vanguard of the constantly connected: Roughly half of 18- to 29-year-olds (48%) say they go online almost constantly and 46% go online multiple times per day. By comparison, just 7% of those 65 and older go online almost constantly and 35% go online multiple times per day.
- The share of younger adults who say they use the internet almost constantly has risen 9% since the last time the survey was conducted in 2018. While the share of 30- to 49-year-olds who say this has risen 8% since 2015, it remains unchanged since 2018. Meanwhile, the share of constantly online Americans ages 50 to 64 has risen from 12% in 2015 to 19% in 2019.
Living With Internet Addiction: Coping & Managing Symptoms
Living with Internet addiction is an ongoing effort. It requires both intention and consistency. What is particularly challenging with this addiction, however, is accessibility. Though drugs and alcohol may prove extremely challenging to avoid, there are practical means of removing the substance and paraphernalia from the home while avoiding triggering environments. The Internet is practically everywhere.
For those in recovery who are living with Internet addiction, some useful and practical considerations are as follows:
- Limit Internet use to only when necessary
- Purchase traditional electronic items rather than those that access the Internet (e.g., television, mobile phone)
- Utilize programs that notify you of time spent online and deactivate WIFI and the device
- Engage in healthy hobbies and prosocial activities
- Build a personal support group of friends and family members you trust
- Talk about any challenges you are having as they arise
- Attend Internet addiction support groups, which are becoming increasingly available
- Re-engage in therapy as needed
The most important thing here is recognizing what works. So long as it is healthy, stick with it. From that point, continually re-evaluate your situation to determine whether you are remaining on a healthy track. Whenever things begin slipping, it is important to take action immediately.
Internet Addiction Tests, Quizzes, and Self-Diagnosis Tools
As increased awareness of Internet addiction has occurred, more tests, quizzes, and self-diagnosis tools have been developed. Many of these tools are designed to determine the number of symptoms present. Each, however, vary in terms of specific questions asked and research supporting their reliability and validity.
Tests Performed by Professionals
A widely used test to determine whether one may potentially have Internet addiction and to what severity was developed by Dr. Kimberly Young.12 The Internet Addiction Test (IAT) is a 20-item test to which the individual provides a “yes” or “no” response. This test was the first validated through extensive research. Further, it has over two decades of additional research to confirm its credibility.
Quizzes and Self Diagnosis
Currently, there are numerous quizzes and self-diagnosis tools available online. One may quickly access these by searching a query such as “Internet addiction test.” As with any other self-diagnosis tool, it is important to proceed with caution. Mental health professionals have trained for many years to learn the art of diagnosis. These tools are best used as a measure of determining whether one may have a problem. If the test indicates that a problem is likely, then the next step recommended is to seek professional assistance as soon as possible.